“So we’re doing this, right?”
I stopped mid-chew to raise an eyebrow at Laurel, my best friend in the world. She’d shown up – unannounced – at my door, too early in the morning for company, but she’d come bearing bagels, so my forgiveness was quick.
“I’m sorry – we?” I asked, once I’d swallowed my mouthful of food to turn from my closet to where she was perched on my bed, reading the contract that’d had me up all night.
She huffed, pulling a handful of braids over her shoulder. “Yes, we. I’m going to live through you as you tell me every little detail of what this man does to you. Every detail.”
“Lo, I need you thinking with logic, not libido!” I fussed, pulling a pair of jeans from the shelf. “I don’t trust myself with this anymore, because the longer I think about it, the more I’m thinking about… maybe…actually… doing this. You have to talk me out of it.”
Laurel cringed. “Yeah, uh… about that… I’m not going to do that. Because it’s actually a great deal.”
“That requires me to have sex with him, for a whole month!”
Slapping the papers down into her lap, Laurel shrugged. “And? I can count at least three fuckboys off the top of my head that you’ve given the pussy for free, for much longer than a month, so what exactly is your point?”
“I… I… this is… this is different!” I insisted.
“It just is.”
Rolling her eyes, Laurel stood, approaching me with her arms crossed as I switched the yoga pants I’d slept in for jeans. “You know what? You’re right. It is different. It’s better.”
She nodded. “Yep. No games, no lies, no bullshit. You each know exactly what you’re getting from this. Everything right up front.”
“Yeah, everything except his name, or his face.”
“Neither of which is relevant, to be honest. You aren’t trying to fall in love – you’re trying to get paid, so you can keep helping those bad ass kids.”
“Not bad, yeah yeah, whatever you say,” Laurel said, waving me off. “The point is, his name doesn’t matter, and neither does his face – you’ll never see it anyway. Who cares what he looks like – you’re getting paid to cum. Why are you complaining?”
I shook my head. “No, see that’s the thing – who says orgasms are on the menu for me? More likely – I’ll just be laying there pretending to enjoy it, waiting for the shit to be over.”
“Which brings me back to those fuckboys that you’re so drawn to. At least with this, you’ll be well-compensated for your troubles.”
“I thought you were talking me out of this?” I asked, pulling a long-sleeved Cartwright Center tee on over my bra. “I shared this because I need help.”
“Bullshit. You already know what you should do – already know what you’re going to do. We both know you aren’t walking away from an opportunity like this. You would do anything for that place, because of what it did for you. So I think it’s time for this conversation to shift away from if you’re going to do this, to how to do it safely. I’m calling my big sister.”
“You are not,” I hissed, dropping the pair of socks I’d just pulled from my drawer to snatch the cell phone from Laurel’s hands. “I do not need anybody else knowing about this, Lo!”
“Give me back my phone!” she yelled, practically crawling over my back as I turned away. “You know Willow is legit – she’s not going to tell anybody!”
“It’s not about that!” I shoved Laurel away, and tucked her phone into my bra before I propped my hands on my hips. “It’s one thing for you to know – you know all my dirty little secrets, and I know all of yours. But this?”
Laurel sucked her teeth, and then walked up to me and shamelessly reached into my cleavage for her phone. “Girl, goodbye. Willow met the dude she’s screwing now at an anonymous sex club, with masks and shit. She is not going to judge you.”
“She wasn’t paid.”
“Sounds like her bad to me,” Laurel countered, tapping something into her phone. “But… if you want to keep it in on the low, I totally understand, and I’m gonna respect that. I won’t tell her the details, I’ll just have her get me some equipment we can use – tracking device to make sure we know where you are, maybe… a safe word or something, that if you say it, it automatically triggers your phone to call the police. I actually know someone who is working on an app like that, maybe I’ll reach out…”
I blew out a sigh. “Shit.”
“What is it?”
I shook my head. “As soon as you said “police”, this whole scenario played out in my mind. I scream “gorgonzola” because this crazy motherfucker is killing me, so my phone calls the police, and who shows up?”
Laurel grinned. “Cree.”
“I would die for you,” Laurel laughed, as I shook my head.
My relationship with Cree was… hard to describe. The easiest thing to call him would be an ex – one of the fuckboys Laurel had thought of earlier – but he was more than that. He was a confidant, a friend, a protector with the authority of a badge. I’d known him since I was twelve years old, and had been moved into the same foster home as him. It wasn’t until we’d both aged out of the system that we were ever romantic, and our “love affair” was messy and short-lived. Somehow, that hadn’t ruined our comradery, and I now thought of him as what he should have remained in the first place – a kind of big brother.
“Can you imagine explaining the whole thing to him? I’d be so embarrassed!”
“Girl Cree would kill his ass,” Laurel giggled. “I still don’t understand how you managed to go from backshots to protective big brother with him, but I need you to teach me your ways.”
I shook my head as I sat down on the end of the bed to put my socks on. “I have no ways, ma’am. I have no swagger. Nobody worth a damn is checking for me.”
“You realize those words mean nothing to me when there is a literal contract for your pussy right here on the bed? Buddy is coming out of major dollars for you. I demand you tell me where you met a man this rich, and explain how to get an offer of my own. My closet app isn’t going to build itself – I could use a sponsor too.”
Sitting up straight, I planted my hands on either side of me on the bed. “Girl, if I knew, you’d be the first person I told. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why me. I mean… he had to have met me or something, right?”
“Yeah… he has to have at least seen you. And didn’t you say this Desiree chick claimed they’d read your grant proposal? So he has to be somebody with money and clout, right?”
I nodded. “Right. You know… I wonder if we could find a list of her clients or something, and figure this out?”
“No chance,” Laurel said, frowning. “There’s no way she has a list – public or private. And if the client requires this level of anonymity… I doubt he would even be seen with Desiree Byers in public. She only shows her face with clients on some power trip shit. I still can’t believe you met her. Is she as bad in person as she is on the internet?”
“Absolutely. Like Olivia Pope in the flesh. Hell, badder.”
“Exactly.” I pushed out a sigh and then stood, going to the vanity mirror over my dresser. I frowned a little as I took in my bare face, standard ponytail, and plain ass clothes – my everyday look for my work at the center. “Why me?” I muttered to myself, temporarily forgetting that Laurel was in the room.
I was quickly reminded though, as she rushed up beside me. “Uh, because you’re gorgeous, Ro. That’s why.”
“No,” I shook my head. “Like, I’m not downing myself or anything. I don’t think I’m unattractive, I’m just… regular. A guy with money like this… in a city like this… I don’t know. I would think he’d choose a woman who… gets her hair done, and dresses well, and takes the time to throw on a little eyeliner, at least. The Desirees of the world, you know?”
Laurel shrugged. “Eh. I guess I get your point, but hell… maybe the fact that you’re not is exactly why he wants you. But um…before you go see him, you’re getting your damn hair done, and putting a face on, right?”
“Obviously,” I scoffed. “I just…God, I don’t know about this. This is nuts. I have to get a physical to do this. I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement if I do this. I have to agree not to even go on a date for the whole month of the agreement.”
I walked away, stepping into my closet for my shoes, but I could feel Laurel rolling her eyes behind me.
“Girl, you know damn well you weren’t going on a date anyway,” she teased. “And the contract stipulates that your only sexual contact will be with each other for the month. So, he’s obligated to monogamy too.”
I sucked my teeth as I grabbed my tennis shoes. “Because a legal obligation ever stopped a man from pulling his dick out. Right.”
“I’m just saying,” Laurel laughed. “You’re acting like this is a bad deal, but the way the contract reads, it sounds like it’s designed so that you’ll be happy too. It doesn’t seem one-sided.”
“I know,” I told her, as I walked back to the bed. “I just… I can’t believe I’m really considering this. Am I really considering this?”
Laurel smirked. “Rewind back to where I explained that it wasn’t even really in question. You’re doing this. I know it. You know it. Desiree Byers knows it. It’s really just a matter of when you’re going to call her.”
I pushed out a deep sigh as I pulled on my sneakers. They seemed even more worn than usual today – frayed laces, stitching that was well past prime, scuffed toes. This was the point I’d reached now – so devoted to the Cartwright Center that I couldn’t even afford to replace my damn shoes.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I pulled them on, determined not to give old feelings of inferiority any space in my head. They were useless, especially when I knew I wasn’t defined by what was on my feet.
Still though… speaking practically…this was no way to live.
Not when I, finally, had the option to change it.
And make a real difference.
“Tonight. I’m calling her tonight.”
- & –
“Come on, Kev! Let’s see a little more hustle!” I yelled, clapping as the kid in question ran toward me from third base. My words prompted him to move a little faster, but the afternoon sun was a coach’s worst nightmare on a sunny day like today. It was talking way louder than I was.
Still, even if they were only giving half-efforts at practice in the energy-draining heat, I felt good that I’d gotten them outside at all, doing something to get their little hearts and legs pumping.
I looked up as a whistle – not mine – sounded, and found Mila and another volunteer, Cody, heading in our direction wearing big smiles. A smile grew on my face too as I took note of the bright red cooler they carried between them, hoping they were about to make my day.
Especially since they were interrupting practice.
“What is this?” I asked, as soon as they were in earshot. “That cooler isn’t one of ours.”
“Bottled water,” Mila gushed. “I have to take the cooler back to the school when we’re done, but I rescued all these from food services. The school switched vendors, so they can’t stock this brand anymore or something. Can you believe they were going to just throw them away?” she asked, flipping the lid open to start handing them out to the hot, thirsty kids.
My eyes got big. “At your university?” I asked, and she nodded. “Wow. Great save. Kids, remember to put those bottles in the recycle bin please!” I yelled, as they started running off. I got a small chorus of “yes ma’ams” before they’d all gotten as far away as they could from practice, opting for the shade closer to the building.
“So, I’ve been thinking,” Mila said, flipping the lid of the cooler closed. “We should reach out to some local business owners, about donations.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, me too. We’ve been doing that. Everybody in a five-block radius has heard my begging.”
She shook her head. “No, not just in the neighborhood, like… the city. Like… the strip. The casinos, the hotels—”
“Oh absolutely not,” I told her, shaking my head. “I’ve never met one that didn’t want their face or name plastered all over the building for a minor donation. Or worse – wanted to turn the Cartwright Center into an ad for their debauchery. No thanks.”
Mila pushed out a sigh as her shoulders dropped. “Damn. I really thought I was onto something that could make a difference.”
“Well, let me walk that back a bit.” I grabbed her hand, and squeezed. “If you want to reach out, I say go for it. It’s been a few years, so maybe they’ve evolved – it never hurts to ask. But remember – maintaining the integrity of this center is paramount. A check won’t change that.”
She nodded. “Yes, of course! We don’t want to get money from just anywhere, right?”
I cleared my throat. “Well… uh… it’s more about the intention behind the money, than the source. Any donation we accept can’t have conditions we aren’t willing to meet. The donor can’t think that their check means they own us, or that they have some sort of say. We are the backbone of this place.”
“Understood,” Mila told me with a smile. I could already see her wheels turning to figure out her pitch to the potential donors. “I think I’m going to set up in-person meetings if I can. Or – oooh, catch them out and about or something. Conveniently in a lowcut top,” she said, leaning in to speak in a low voice. “God didn’t give me titties this nice for no reason, right? Boobs for charity!”
She laughed at what she clearly intended as a joke, and I did too, even though I felt a little sick about it. Mila was young, incredibly bright, and incredibly beautiful – and obviously not oblivious to the fact that she could use all three of those factors as currency in our society. Still… I didn’t want that for her.
“While I appreciate your enthusiasm, our cause can speak for itself – no boobs needed,” I gently scolded, making sure to temper it with a laugh. Thankfully, Mila’s bubbly nature shined through, preserving the light moment.
“Alright, I’ll try it your way first, but I’m telling you now – if I see another final notice on one of those bills, I’m walking up to one of those Drake hotel twins with my twins out. Somebody is gonna write this place a dang check,” she laughed, offering me a wave as she headed off with the cooler, to pass out water to a fresh wave of kids coming for the after-school services.
I was a hypocrite.
There was no way of getting around it.
I didn’t want Mila using her looks to garner donations for this place, didn’t want her to have to fall back on such tactics… while Desiree Byers’ business card was practically burning a hole in my pocket.
I’d been thinking about it all day, and my decision was made, for the most part. I didn’t want to see another final notice bill either, and agreeing to this completely ridiculous arrangement seemed like my only viable, long-term option.
“Ms. Ro! Ms. Ro!”
I snapped out of my depressing thoughts long enough to see a pack of preschool-aged girls headed in my direction, already giggling. There was nothing I could do to help the smile they brought to my face as they swarmed me, holding on to my legs.
“Fweeze Pops!” they demanded, and I laughed, nodding.
Of course, it was that time of day. Like clockwork, they came to me requesting the frozen treats as a reprieve from… whatever they’d faced that day, happy times or not. If I couldn’t do anything else to be a bright spot, I could do that.
As long as we’re here.
“Come on babies,” I sang, laughing as they quickly made a line behind me, following me straight to the kitchen inside. I stopped in front of the deep freezer, turning to them with a little smile as I stalled on doling the treats out. “What is the magic word, hmmm?”
“Pweeeze Ms. Ro?!”
My little smile grew into a big grin as I nodded. “Yes my sweethearts, you know it!” I flipped up the lid to the freezer with a flourish and reached inside to where we kept the freezer pops, but froze when my hand connected with warm plastic.
“No,” I whispered, tears instantly forming behind my eyelids as I took in the scene in front of me. The bottom of the freezer was a soupy mess of melted ice cream sandwiches, the treats the kids had asked for were back to their liquid state, and hundreds and hundreds of dollars of hot dogs and hamburgers – food Cody was supposed to put on the grill and sell at the upcoming softball game – was slowly rotting in the warm freezer.
“Ms. Roooo freeze popssss!” a little voice demanded, and I dropped the lid of the freezer and covered my face with my hands, shaking my head.
“I… I can’t right now baby I’m sorry,” I said, trying to keep it together.
“Rowan… what’s wrong?”
I peeked through my fingers to see Mila at the doorway to the kitchen, frowning. “The freezer…” Instead of saying more, I simply shook my head, and from the look on her face, she caught on.
“No fweeze pops?” another kid asked, her hurt feelings apparent in her voice – a sound that instantly made the lump in my throat even bigger.
“You know what?” I asked, attempting to sound cheerful as I hurried past them, to my office. “I have an idea!” I pulled out my keys and unlocked my desk, retrieving my wallet. My hands shook as I pulled out my one, lonely credit card. My “emergency” card, with a tiny credit limit and absurd interest rate. I used my free hand to wipe away a stray tear, and then turned to hand the card to Mila.
“Go flag down an ice cream truck or something. Or… run to the store, and get these babies some popsicles. It’s not a day at the Cartwright Center if we can’t even have popsicles, right?” I asked the kids who’d followed Mila and me to the office.
Of course, they were excited about the prospect, but Mila looked unconvinced, glancing between me and that credit card with a frown. “Rowan… are you sure?”
“Yes,” I snapped, without intending to. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“I get it, Ro. You’re good.”
I nodded, then turned away from her, focusing my attention out the window. “Okay. So… you go work out some popsicles, and I… am going to call somebody about this freezer. And about the food.”
“But we can’t af—”
“Popsicles, Mila. Please?”
She pushed out a sigh, but she nodded. “Popsicles. Yeah.”
As soon as she left, kids in tow, I closed the door behind her, pressing my back to it after I’d flipped the lock. I didn’t even fight it as my knees buckled and I sank to the ground, face in my hands as I broke into sobs.
I let myself have a few minutes of that, but then I shook my head, knowing what I needed to do. I fished Desiree’s card from my pocket, and grabbed my cell phone, dialing the number on the front. She answered on the third ring, confident and competent while I sat on peeling, ancient linoleum feeling useless.
“Ms. Phillips, I hope this call means that you’ve decided to accept my client’s offer.”
I swallowed hard. “Uh… yeah. I mean, yes. Yes, it does.”
“Excellent! Let me know your availability for tomorrow, and we’ll get you in for your physical. If all is well, we’ll sign paperwork and move forward. You can have a check in your hand in as little as 48 hours,” she chirped.
“Yeah. About that,” I said, swallowing yet again, trying to bring moisture to my dry throat. “I need a favor. Tonight.”
There was silence on the line for several long seconds, and then…
“I’m listening. Go on.”
– & –
She said yes.
Des’ words echoed in my head, making something like relief sink into my shoulders.
“Reid, are you still there? You didn’t pass out from happiness, did you?”
I chuckled at her teasing as I shook my head. “No, not quite. So what’s next?”
“Well, she’s getting her medical exam tomorrow, and then we do paperwork, and then… she’s all yours.”
“There was something else though,” Des added, knowing I was preparing to end the call. “She… asked for a favor.”
My excitement waned. “She did?”
“Oh yes she most certainly did, and I just want you to know that I feel a way about it.”
I dipped my head, eyes closed as I pressed the phone closer to my ear. “What did she want?”
Des huffed. “Well, do you know that woman had the absolute gall to ask me if I could help her… get a new freezer for the center, and fill it with the kind of cheap, processed meats that go best on buns. The one she had went out.”
Immediately, I laughed. “You’re serious?”
“I’m serious. All the eligible women in this sinful city, and you ask Mary friggin’ Poppins for a sex contract. Only you, Reid.”
My lips spread into a grin. “So you took care of it, right? Used the account I set up?”
“No. I mean, yes, I took care of it. No, I didn’t use your account. This one is on me. Ms. Phillips managed to tug my heartstrings.”
“I didn’t know you had those, Des,” I teased.
She laughed. “Yeah, well now you do. I will update you tomorrow, after the medical exam.”
I hung up with Des and put my phone down on the table, reaching for my fork with a renewed appetite after hearing such good news.
“I’m glad to see a smile on your face, my love, but many people would find answering the phone at the dinner table quite rude.”
There goes my appetite again.
My fork dropped from my fingers, clattering on the table as I clasped my hands. My elbows dug into the hardwood surface as I propped my chin on my fists, and glared across the table at my fiancée.
“Well, my love,” I started, not bothering to filter my sarcastic tone. “Many people would find the fact that you let another man stick his dick down your throat quite rude, but what do I know about proper etiquette, huh?”
Instantly, the smug grin dropped from Enid’s face, replaced by a scowl. “Obviously not much. How dare you speak to me that way?”
“Oh baby… if you think that was rough, you’d really be scandalized by what I haven’t said.”
She sat back in her seat, pushing her freshly-done weave away from her face. “How many times have I said I was sorry?”
“How many times have I said I don’t give a fuck? Not that I believe you anyway.”
“Why not?” she hissed – a question that brought back my smile.
“Why not?” I repeated. “Why would I? You were laid up with another motherfucker with my mother’s heirloom ring on your hand, and I have the pictures to prove it because your ass was too stupid to exercise some fucking tact. Or maybe because of the abortion you don’t know that I know you had, without speaking a single word to me about being pregnant – probably because you couldn’t be sure who the father was. Does that answer your question?”
For a second, she was silent. Eyes wide, mouth open, struck by the revelation I’d just made. Then, she suddenly stood, so fast that her chair went flying backward, hitting the floor with a loud thump.
“I do not have to take this from you Reid. I’m done,” she screamed, snatching off her ring and launching it toward my chest.
I caught it, and was out of my chair and on her in seconds, stopping her before she pushed her way through the dining room door.
“See that’s where you’re dead ass wrong,” I growled, right in her face. “You’re not done. You will take it. Because you have as much riding on this as I do, and you know it.”
“Then I guess you’d better be a little nicer, hmm?” she asked – or rather, purred, grinning as she pushed her body against mine.
I shook my head, realizing that my anger was exactly the reaction she’d wanted.
“Nah. Don’t count on it,” I told her, pushing the ring into my pocket. “Thank you for finally taking that off. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get it without breaking your fingers. We’ll get you something else to wear. And you will wear it. You will act like you have some fucking sense. You will use some damn discretion while you’re running around with your little boyfriend.”
She pouted. “What boyfriend? I messed up, fine. But that’s over. There’s only you, my love.”
“Don’t insult me,” I whispered into her hair, then planted a kiss on her forehead. “We both know the truth.”
Her hands went to my belt buckle, and tugged. “Let me make it up to you. Right here. Right now. You haven’t touched me in months, Reid… I know you’re starving.”
“You’re right,” I told her, grabbing her hands. “I am.” I lifted one of my hands to her chin, cupping it to stare into her beautiful, campaign-perfect face. “But every time I look at you… I lose my appetite.”
I dropped her chin and stepped away, not bothering to go back to my plate. I grabbed my phone and headed out, leaving my fiancée standing in the dining room alone.
I had plans to make.